Interview | FFS 5 with Singing Rivers’ Mikey James

Photo by Micah Hagen

Mikey James’ artists path has meandered and wounded through a number of idiosyncratic lives. From developing demos on a 4-track in the early 90s to drumming with indie rock wonders Longwave, James has lived the life of a bonafide troubadour. The ebb and flow of his career has now led him to another high, reunited with an old bandmate in the form of Anthony Kuhn. Together, they’re creating some of the most captivating music that either has ever made. Featuring Kuhn’s signature slide guitar and James’ punchy delivery, the end result is Singing River—a folk-rock project that can stand with the best of ’em.

Songs like ‘Everyday Love’, with lively vocals and swirl of keys and slide, recall the likes of Dylan in ways that feel unironic, inspired, and perhaps even unintended. Vibing guitar, sweet harmonies, and a percussive brainworm might well recall Neil Young. Singing River simply sits within the scape of folk-rock iconicity out of sheer moxie, developed by James and Kuhn’s collective passion.

Tell us about your new Digital 45.

‘Everyday Love / Easy To Remember’ is our second digital 45. ‘Everyday Love’ was something I knew I really liked when I wrote it last April. Callan Saunders (from The Demos) and I worked the lyrics for about a month off and on until we had the message we wanted. There’s an acoustic version I did first, and we almost thought that it was the finished version of the song. We were gonna add Anthony onto it and be done. But then we decided to have me dub the drums onto that acoustic version, and when Anthony nailed those slide and electric guitar parts it just felt great to us and we finished the “band version”. The acoustic version I should put up on Bandcamp or something.

‘Easy To Remember’ is a little ballad that I wrote around the same time as well. We thought they paired nicely together. On that song I really was trying to chase some T Bone Burnett vibes. “Raising Sand” in particular. We would love to have Jay Bellerose on a song some day. The song has a romantic notion, but when I was writing the song I was thinking about people you really appreciate, in general. Their essence. We put a few songs out earlier this year, but we really wanted to push these two out to the world as our “hello”.

How did the collaboration between you and Anthony come about?

Anthony and I met back in the summer of 1994, right after we graduated high school. He was from a different town. At the time I was in a band with all my high school friends. And we were pretty good for kids, we opened for Moe and a few other national touring bands. I was drumming but also writing the vocal hooks, while another friend, our main guitarist, was writing the music. Steve from Longwave was in this band too, but it wasn’t a serious thing to him, he was just having fun with friends. We could never find a permanent lead singer. One guy we found whose voice I liked a lot, he would come down to sing here and there, but he didn’t want to commit. And he kept bringing his guitarist around who was really good. It was Anthony. We had two guitarists already so we didn’t need another guitarist but Anthony offered to sing. And it worked. The band disintegrated pretty quick though. I started learning guitar and wanted to front, and the other writer/guitarist hated my songs. Steve was also in a more serious band that was close to getting signed, so it all fell apart. And we all went our own way essentially.

Then in 2007, I was fronting my band The Mercies, and we had just released our first record. The guy we had hired to cover and learn all the keyboard parts quit after like three gigs, and really bummed us all out. I actually thought of Anthony for his replacement because of his ability to adapt musically, and even dropped him a disc to learn a few songs. It may have re-sparked the chemistry within The Mercies had we actually got him down to play, but we ended up dissolving that band a few weeks later cause no one could see eye to eye anymore. So he and I missed that opportunity. 

And finally in late ‘19, Anthony was out to dinner with a close friend of ours, and our friend texted to tell me. I said, “Tell Anthony to come over and jam”. He did, and that was it. He was over within the next couple weeks. From the first song we started playing we knew it was a good fit. It felt like the old days when we actually had fun. I was working on stripping everything down to full takes and organic instrumentations, and live performance recording. And he was into the idea.

He just has that knack for complimenting what’s being said in the song. He plays for the song. We connected at the right time this time.

Anthony and I just recently figured out that our acquaintance goes back all the way to 1985 actually. We lived one block from each other back then, but he went to private school, so we never hung out or had the same circle. Although we think we played kickball against each other at a mutual friend’s house one time. Pretty cool stuff. We almost named this project based off those two blocks, Campbell & Wetmore. But neither of us wanted to be Wetmore. We did decide our first names though: Gary and Ken.

Who were your influences growing up? Have they changed as you’ve gotten older?

We both have a lot of the same influences. I grew up surrounded by bar band culture. My Dad had me playing drums at bars named “Chug-a-Lug” and “Spur of the Moment” at age 6. ZZ Top, ‘Willy the Wimp’ by Stevie Ray, stuff like that. We are making a Spotify playlist with all the songs that we were inundated with as children, songs that spark the nostalgia of our upbringing. It has Bob Seger ‘Fire Down Below’, Little Walter ‘My Babe’, Jonathan Edwards ‘Shanty’ for example. I would be in basement rehearsals with my Dad’s bands in the early to mid 80’s with these songs. I basically ignored these influences growing up. Brit-Pop, the Beatles, rediscovering Bowie, and Bolan was the turning point for me in the mid to late 90’s.

Speaking of Bowie, I have an Uncle who is a Professor of Literature. He is only 7 years older than me. He is my brother essentially. From ‘83 to ‘87 he had me listening to Bowie, KISS, Ramones, The Doors, The Cure, Jesus & Mary Chain. A pretty diverse set of artists at a very early age. So while my Dad is feeding me stoner Heartland Rock and Blues music at home, my Uncle is giving me Glam, New Wave, early Alternative, and the Lizard King. 

It took me a long time to guide with my own musical taste. Because of inherent childhood nostalgia and these heavy influences. So yes, things have changed as I have gotten older for sure. I used to gobble up music press in my 20’s. I wanted to know every band. MOJO, NME, Uncut, Q, Big Takeover, CMJ, Rolling Stone, Spin magazines. I had subscribed to them all. I’m too impressionable.  I would say the first definitive line in the sand was right before I joined Longwave. That Summer and Fall of 2001. Dylan’s Love & Theft, and Van Morrison set the seeds for what I loved through personal discovery. Cash’s American albums also. I recently found a mix disc from 2002, when Longwave were on tour with The Strokes, and it has a bunch of songs from Love & Theft, Scott Walker, Van Morrison, Tim Buckley, Tom Waits, and Mahalia Jackson. It really revealed to me how long, deep down I was burying this need to make music more organically. 

And then, after being let go by Ardent Music in 2013, I started playing bar gigs with my Dad’s band, playing drums. I just wanted to hang out with him. And somehow, all that old classic music I grew up with made sense to me again. Making people dance to One Way Out by the Allmans, I don’t know, it had a Mr. Miyagi effect on me. Like that Quincy Jones line, something like, “You have to know where you came from, to know where you’re going”.

But at the same time, musically, I was completely lost. No one listened to my ‘Hawker M. James – Long Playing Lo-Fidelity’ record I had released, which I really thought was good. It would take me nearly giving up music completely, which I pondered, for me to say, “what is it that I even like anymore about making music…?” So I stopped looking at any press at all, and put everything anyway, stopped gigging, and just waited to see what crept back in. It was Dylan’s Tell Tale Signs, Tom Waits’ “Swordfishtrombones”, and Levon Helm (to name a few), that made me think I could be excited again. Then I started studying producers and engineers like Lanois, Burnett, Matassa, Dowd, and bought some gear to record myself and get out of traditional studios.

What have you been listening to music-wise lately?

I’m always seeking new inspiration to direct it into more material and songs.  I heard the “Divided & United: The Songs of the Civil War’ compilation for the first time, a few weeks back. It was an emotional listen for me. Several songs brought me to the brink of tears. I also watched Joe Henry’s recent ‘Five Things I’ve Learned’ lecture, (who produced the aforementioned compilation), and I am always listening to records he’s involved in. I was led to that by ‘The Year of Jubilo’ compilation, a collaboration of Joe Bussard (‘The King of 78’s’), and Dust To Digital. I also have been on a serious Mills Brothers kick.

A lot of their early Brunswick sides are not in print and it’s a shame. I’m taking a course at a local university called ‘Understanding the Blues’, and I’ve made a playlist with the referenced songs from the course. But a lot of my research taste in songs don’t fly in the car. The girls (my wife and daughter) don’t vibe on them as much. In the car with the family is different, we’ve had Springsteen’s Born In the USA going. My daughter heard that song on the 4th of July and she keeps asking for it. Dylan’s Modern Times has been going (a summer family classic), the new Wallflowers is a great return album, Levon Helm ‘American Son’, the Petty ‘Angel Dream’ songs, Beach Boys records in Mono, the Bull Durham soundtrack, and the current tracks on the North Americana Sirius station. Washington Phillips has been on a lot the past year, and the Golden Gate Quartet. 

I asked Anthony (guitarist) what he’s been listening to lately, and you can really see what makes the project what it is. He’s just devouring classic 70’s, early 80’s stuff at the moment, Seger, (‘Fire Lake’, on repeat), the Boss, Jackson Browne, Fleetwood Mac (Lindsey is a major influence on his playing), and Eagles. 

What are your plans for the rest of 2021? 

Our first EP will be out on 10/29.  It’ll have the first singles we’ve released so far, and 5 more. It’s 10 songs, 30 minutes, which I suppose can mean an LP, but it just isn’t to us. It’s just the first 10 songs that fell into completion. An LP to me has a different approach entirely in its construction. And then we’ll have one more single in December. We’re going to just keep putting out songs, hopefully we can get a little grassroots following to start. We’re filming our first video this month, for ‘Easy To Remember’ at a landmark carousel with family and friends. Thanks for having us on this interview, we really appreciate it.

Words by: Jonathan Frahm